Skip to main content

Stop shipping volatile oil by rail

By Wayde Schafer, Special to CNN
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Thu July 11, 2013
Most of the 73-car train derailed in Lac-Megantic; cars full of oil exploded and burned.
Most of the 73-car train derailed in Lac-Megantic; cars full of oil exploded and burned.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wayde Schafer: Many communities have rail lines running right through them
  • Schafer: North Dakota crude oil loaded onto trains causes a tragedy in Canada
  • N.D. oil production rose by 10 times since 2011, more and and heavier trains needed
  • It's too dangerous, he says. Trains go through towns and weren't designed for oil

Editor's note: Wayde Schafer is the organizing representative of the Dacotah chapter of the Sierra Club.

(CNN) -- The tragedy of the train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, has brought home just how small our world has become. Oil that was drilled in North Dakota's Bakken oil fields is loaded onto rail cars and passes through a small Canadian community and shatters their world in an instant. All my thoughts and best wishes go out to the families and emergency responders in the midst of this human and environmental catastrophe.

Everyone is touched by this man-made disaster -- 20 killed, 30 missing -- because so many communities have a rail line running right through the middle of town. Here in North Dakota, like all over the U.S. and Canada, towns grew up around the railroad lines. They brought people in to help settle the state and shipped the farm and manufacturing products to other parts of the world.

But the increase in the amount of volatile crude oil being transported by rail from North Dakota's Bakken fields has brought a new and troubling set of problems to the debate about our continued dependency on fossil fuels, and particularly oil, as an energy source.

Railroad engineers did not have transporting oil in mind when they laid out the routes. They did not avoid population centers, rivers, or environmentally sensitive areas. They were only concerned with getting from Point A to Point B in the most efficient manner possible. In fact, trains carrying oil tanker cars run just two blocks from my office, right through the heart of Bismarck, North Dakota.

Rail is the most efficient way to move freight, and Sierra Club is a big fan of rail for transporting people and conventional freight. But moving extreme fossil fuels, like Bakken shale or Alberta tar sands, is a different story entirely.

These fuels are "extreme" because they are more toxic and more carbon intensive than conventional oil. They are also more dangerous to transport than conventional sources of oil. Production in the Bakken fields has increased nearly 10 times since 2011. To move all this crude, oil rail companies are running longer, heavier trains. And they are running them farther than ever before, bringing crude to refineries on the East, West and Gulf coasts.

The regulatory framework for train safety wasn't designed for crude oil trains, and the rail and safety infrastructure is out of date and not up to the task. A state transportation safety spokesman in Maine this week said that the Lac-Magantic disaster is "on the same parallel as a tractor-trailer accident. It's private commerce and we don't get involved." This catastrophe proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that the transportation of Bakken shale requires much more vigilant oversight.

It's too early to draw conclusions from the ongoing catastrophe in Lac-Megantic, but there's one simple lesson that we should not ignore. Bakken shale, tar sands, and other extreme fossil fuels threaten our towns and our communities. We can't afford the additional cost, in safety or pollution that these fuels bring. And with growing efficiency and with renewable sources of energy, we don't need them.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Wayde Schafer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:30 AM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT